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School officials to city: Help us, but ask what we need

Leaders talk schools, Freedom Riders park in council retreat

Anniston Council retreat

Anniston City Manager Steven Folks speaks to the 2020 version of the City Council during a retreat for council members at the Anniston Regional Airport. 

When the Anniston City Council in September voted to amend its budget to set aside $40,000 for new high school band uniforms, Anniston Board of Education president Robert Houston was as surprised as anyone.

“We didn’t find out about it until it was done,” Houston said.

Houston and Anniston City Schools Superintendent Ray Hill were among the city leaders who sat down with newly elected and re-elected City Council members at Anniston Regional Airport Tuesday in the second day of a retreat — a lengthy review of city operations intended to get council members up to speed on what they need to know for the coming four years.

Houston and Hill told council members they want the city’s help, and will need help with some projects in coming years. But they also made it clear that unrequested help from the city wasn’t making their jobs any easier.

The council earlier this year briefly discussed hiring an architect to draw up plans for a new Anniston High School, an idea brought up on the campaign trail by then-councilman Ben Little. As with the band uniforms, Hill and Houston said it was something the school board did not ask for.

Anniston in 2020 again ran up against a conundrum of American politics. Local schools are governed by an elected school board, separate from city or county government — but voters often look to city and county officials to improve education, and candidates often made education a part of their platform. That can lead to gifts of things — like new band uniforms — that weren’t in school administrators’ plans.

“Not that the band didn’t need that,” said Hill, himself a former band director. “But to be honest, there are some other things that are more needed in the district.”

School officials didn’t say they didn’t want the city’s help. In fact, just the opposite. Anniston Schools now operates a middle school, a high school, three elementary schools and a pre-K/kindergarten center, with a total student body under 1,700.

School officials say they know they’re going to have to close some schools eventually, and may need to build new school buildings for consolidated schools. To raise revenue for that, they’d likely need a sales tax increase, which would require action by the city. But Houston said that plan would likely come after a lot of study, to be done after the COVID-19 threat passes and things settle down. Hill agreed.

“There is a great opportunity to do good here, but we need to be strategic about it,” Hill said.

Council members and school officials said they’d likely begin quarterly joint meetings to make sure they’re on the same page in the future, while council members said they’d make sure to consult with the school board on their needs.

Councilman Demetric “D.D.” Roberts, elected in October, said he’s aware of how often people come to the council with their ideas about city schools.

“Not only am I expected to save the entire west side,” he said, “anything that happens at Anniston High School, I’m expected to make it right.”

 

Park Service pondering virtual 60th at Freedom Riders Park

May 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and National Park Service officials are pondering ways to mark the event in the era of COVID-19.

“We’re going to roll out a series of virtual events,” said Kris Butcher, supervisor of Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston.

Butcher gave Anniston City Council members an update on the progress of the park Tuesday at a council retreat at Anniston Regional Airport.

Freedom Riders National Monument is the park service designation for the sites where civil rights activists in 1961 were attacked by a white mob in Anniston while working to integrate interstate buses. Federal officials are still working to prepare the bus burning site on Alabama 202 and the old bus station in downtown Anniston, though the sites already attract visitors.

Butcher said the state is well on its way to providing the site with a bus, with an exterior appropriate to the period. That could be ready by the new year, he said. Work on restoration of Anniston’s old bus station could take up to three years, he said.

Butcher said the Park Service has hired Anniston’s Southern Custom Exhibits to create a temporary display at the bus-burning site on Alabama 202.

“We’re seeing a shift in what people want to see,” he said. Civil War sites were once the biggest draw, he said, but now visitors are increasingly interested in civil rights history.

Council members also heard from Retail Strategies, the Birmingham consulting firm the city hired to recruit new businesses to the city.

Jeff Sommer, portfolio director for the company, said the city looks larger to retailers than its official population of about 22,000 would suggest.

Sommer showed the council maps based on cell phone data that suggest the Lenlock Walmart draws customers from as far as the outskirts of Jacksonville, with the heaviest concentration of customers in Saks and Alexandria, outside city limits. Businesses in the city reach a market of around 47,000 people, he said.

According to the company’s studies, the city is losing revenue from shoppers who go out of town for items such as auto parts, building materials and furniture.

He said it’s still possible to recruit new retailers despite the pandemic and the shift to online shopping.

“People talk about the ‘retail apocalypse,’” he said. “That’s somewhat happening, but it’s also overblown.”

Sommer listed some of the company’s recruiting victories, including a restaurant called Hot Dog Factory. Council members said the restaurant isn’t open yet but will be on South Quintard.

Sommer said people often worry about the opening of businesses, including restaurants, that duplicate things that are already in the city. He said that kind of competition often isn’t a problem.

“Success breeds success,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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